Sun, Nov 10, 2019 - Page 16 News List

Next-generation protein could come from air or volcanic springs

As the alternative meat industry sees explosive growth, start-ups are developing innovative ways to turn untapped resources into new products — and reduce humanity’s carbon footprint

By Thin Lei Win  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, ROME

Packages of beef are displayed for sale beside Impossible Burger Inc plant-based meat products at a grocery store in Los Angeles on Sept. 20.

Photo: Bloomberg

It might sound like science fiction, but in a few short years the family dinner table could be laden with steak from a printer and other proteins produced from air, methane or volcanic microbes.

With the explosive success of vegan beef and burger substitutes developed by Beyond Meat Inc and Impossible Foods Inc, the alternative protein sector just keeps growing.

Alternative meat sales could reach US$140 billion — or 10 percent of the global meat industry — within a decade, or a 10-fold increase from current levels, Barclays PLC said.

A new generation of products in the works melds cutting-edge technology with age-old fermentation processes to turn otherwise harmful or everyday elements into essential food ingredients, with the aim of reducing agriculture’s massive carbon footprint.

Agriculture, forestry and other land use activities accounted for 23 percent of total net greenhouse gas emissions of human origin from 2007 to 2016, soaring to 37 percent when pre and post-production activity were factored in, UN data showed.

Meanwhile, livestock are responsible for about 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said.

Enter Solar Foods Ltd, a Finnish company working on an edible protein powder called Solein, which uses water, air and renewable electricity as a way to separate food production from agriculture.

“You avoid land use impacts like clearing forests for agriculture, use of pesticides and use of fertilizers that release greenhouse gases and so on,” Solar Foods cofounder and CEO Pasi Vainikka said.

Solein is made by putting microbes into a liquid and feeding them small bubbles of hydrogen and carbon dioxide, a process similar to making beer or wine, apart from the lack of grapes or grains, he said.

As the liquid thickens, it is dried into a very fine powder that is about 65 percent protein and tastes much like wheat flour.

In September, Solar Foods struck an agreement with Nordic food company Fazer Group to develop products using Solein, which can be used in existing plant-based offerings or future products such as lab-grown meat.

Solein is to cost about 5 euro (US$5.51) per kilogram to produce and would hit the market by 2021, Vainikka said.

“There’s a lot of climate anxiety,” Vainikka said. “And people are looking for hope and solutions, and they’re happy to see companies like ours, so that’s encouraging.”

Another company tackling agriculture’s emissions through fermentation, Bengaluru, India-based String Bio Pvt Ltd, is working to convert methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide as it traps 28 times more heat, from waste and natural sources into protein powder — initially for animals.

“We said this is probably the best impact we humans can have in this world, where we take something that we don’t need for the environment and convert it into something we do need,” said Vinod Kumar, who founded the company with his wife, Ezhil Subbian.

Such environmental considerations, along with concerns over animal welfare and human health, have driven both demand and supply of alternative proteins, investment firm Unovis Partners managing partner Dan Altschuler Malek said.

He said that just 10 years ago retailers saw alternative proteins as a risky bet, but “today they realize there is a huge demand for all these products.”

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